Black Christian pastors in Utah may minister to small congregations, with older members slowly dying out, or large ones, attracting younger believers.
But most of them face a similar question from curious outsiders: Are there really Black churches in the Beehive State?
The answer is yes. In fact, there are more than a dozen historically Black congregations, and the roles these preachers play is crucial to the state’s religious life.
Thus, for February’s Black History Month — amid a persistent pandemic and revived debates and demonstrations about the mistreatment of minorities — here are profiles of five Black clerics who have dealt with the issue of racism in a mostly white state.
The Rev. Oscar Moses
Moses had barely preached a few sermons when the church had to shut down in-person services due to the coronavirus, so he returned for three months to his former home in Chicago, where he could lead remotely the predominantly African American Salt Lake City congregation.
Whether in his Midwestern church or in the Beehive State, the race issue, he says, “does shape and inform the way I preach.”
It’s the lens through which Moses explores the Bible, including stories of the “children of Israel being in slavery being liberated,” the pastor says, “and how Christ liberated those who were marginalized in his day.”
Moses preaches “liberation theology,” he says. “Our victory is in Christ.”
Racism in Utah is not as “aggressive as in Chicago,” he says. “It’s more passive aggressive.”
He already has experienced it in his new home.
Once Moses was driving in South Jordan, where a policeman followed and then stopped him. The officer accused him of speeding. Moses says he wasn’t. If he hadn’t told the man he was a former officer himself and now a pastor, Moses says, “I don’t know if I would have gotten out of the ticket.”
Several Calvary members joined last year’s protests after the killing of George Floyd, but Moses insists they were not involved in any rioting. The pastor posted a statement on the church’s website, outlining his position.
“I wanted to be absolutely clear to Calvary members where I stood,” he recalls. “There is a place for civil disobedience, but we embrace the nonviolence preached by Martin Luther King and Gandhi.”
Though the congregation is once again meeting only virtually (they did come together during the summer and early fall but discontinued when COVID-19 cases soared), Moses has ambitious plans for the future.
They include teaching the five pillars of Bible-based Christian family values:
• Christ in the home.
• God’s word in everyday life.
• The role of the family.
• Devotion to the church.
• Civic duties toward the government.
“I hope the [1,800] members of Calvary,” he says, “catch the vision to prepare future generations to go out and evangelize the world.”
God brought him to Utah, Moses says, “for such a time as this.”
Bishop Bobby Allen
Not quite three years after graduating from a Texas high school, Bobby Allen came to Utah in 1960 to live with his dad, waiting to be drafted into the military.
It never happened.
Instead, Allen joined Ogden’s Griffin Memorial Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal Holiness denomination, whose members are mostly African Americans.
Under the tutelage of the church’s late superintendent, D.F. Griffin, of the Ogden district, Allen became a lay minister in the faith, traveling across Utah and Idaho, while holding other jobs.
By 1974, he felt a call to the ministry, but Griffin felt his young acolyte should be ordained an “elder.” That’s required to become a bishop, the highest regional title in the denomination.
Allen served as a deacon, associate minister, elder, pastor, Sunday school superintendent, jurisdictional choir president and jurisdictional youth department president at Griffin Temple (as it is called), earning a Christian teaching certificate in 1971 from the C.H. Mason System of Bible Colleges, which had a course in Ogden.
In 1991, he became Griffin Temple’s pastor, and, two years later, he rose to the position of “Bishop Allen,” which is the jurisdictional leader, today supervising six Churches of God in Christ congregations in Utah and one in Boise, sometimes filling in when there are pastor openings.
These days, his now multiethnic Ogden congregation has dwindled to about 50 members.
“We are not just a Black church,” Allen says. “Everyone is welcome — we have some LDS friends who come regularly.”
Except for three weeks last spring, his Griffin congregation has been meeting pretty steadily during the pandemic — outside when the weather was nice and inside because their church is large and numbers small enough to spread out, wearing masks.
At 82, he has experienced racism firsthand, living in a mostly white state.
In Utah, he says, it “is not as open as in other places.”
When he was young, the future bishop was the only African American working as a mechanic at a large Salt Lake City engine shop and at several of his other jobs.
“The Lord put me in places to help [others] deal with diversity,” Allen says. “...You see, racism is not born into children, It has to be taught to them.”
Still, he wouldn’t trade his calling for a ministry elsewhere. “God planted me in Utah.”
For him, his wife, Patz Allen, who retired from the Air Force after 20 years, and some of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, it is the right place.
Pastor Daryell Jackson
Pastor Daryell Jackson was, as they say, born and bred in Utah. He attended Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church near downtown Salt Lake City throughout his childhood, but in his youth, stepped away from religion.
Now he is fully back and has been the minister at the historic church for the past three years, replacing the retired Rev. Nurjhan Govan.
Jackson is working on his college degree in Christian studies through Phoenix-based Grand Canyon University. After that, he will attend seminary.
For now, though, Jackson leads his tiny flock — fewer than 30 members — of mostly elderly Black members.
The congregation has only two children, he jokes. His. They are 14 and 15.
Jackson has definitely encountered racist attitudes and actions living in Utah. There was a lot of racial profiling in his childhood. Just walking down the street would attract stares and concern.
“You knew racism was there,” he says, “but it wasn’t as open as today.”
Still, race isn’t the center of his sermons.
“I don’t focus on African Americans or the Black community,” Jackson says. “The congregation is a little more diverse. And if someone else walked into a service, my words wouldn’t be any different.”
The worshippers haven’t been meeting since March in their church — which is on the national historic registry as the oldest Black church in Utah — due to the pandemic.
Instead, the pastor hosts a weekly conference call for the congregants, many of whom are elderly and uncomfortable with interactive internet platforms like Zoom.
That will continue for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, they are working to renovate the “fellowship hall” in the church basement, where social activities take place.
The pastor hopes that they can build up the congregation, draw in more young people, and become a “light in the community.”
A lot of people drive by the little church on Martin Luther King Boulevard, Jackson says, and wonder if it’s a church or a museum.
It is a church, he says, with an invaluable role to play in faith and in the future.
The Rev. Brenda Hector
A woman among Utah’s Black Christian ministers, Pastor Brenda Hector actually lives in Denver.
For the two years before COVID-19 struck, though, she made the trip to Ogden every weekend to preach at Embry Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Now she and Pastor Daryell Jackson at Trinity AME Church in Salt Lake City alternate leading their members in a conference call.
“We have around 25 to 30 members,” Hector says, “whose average age is 70.”
Embry Chapel isn’t an exclusively Black church, she says, drawing ethnic Vietnamese and white members as well.
“I like to see it as a neighborhood church,” she says, “in a multiracial neighborhood.”
The older Black members have definitely experienced racism, she says. Their grandparents lived on plantations, and they themselves lived through the civil rights movement, “but they don’t dwell on it.”
Still, Hector says, it is time to bring in younger people to be mentored by their elders.
“We need to teach them and then turn it over to them,” she says, “so we can sit out.”
Hector worries about what will happen when the pandemic subsides.
“Some people will prefer to stay home; they’re scared,” she says. “It will be a challenge for the church.”
And, Hector says, “for the pastor.”
The Rev. Corey Hodges
Utah was hardly the Rev. Corey Hodges’ first choice as a place to serve.
The Black pastor from Tampa, Fla., was on his way to a job interview in California in 1998, when a friend suggested he stop by Utah’s little New Pilgrim Baptist Church in west Salt Lake County to fill in for a weekend after its pastor left.
Hodges, then a young seminary graduate with a wife and three sons, didn’t get the job in San Bernardino, but New Pilgrim was so impressed by his preaching that it hired him after further interviews. He got the job Feb. 1, 1998, and has been leading that church in the 23 years since.
At the time, Hodges knew nothing about the Beehive State’s history or its predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I couldn’t have pointed to Utah on a map,” he quips, adding his mom said when he took the position, “There are no Black people in Utah, besides Karl Malone [the Jazz’s Hall of Fame basketball player].
But Hodges has grown to love his adopted home.
He hasn’t endured much overt racism, but he has been the target of routine profiling and stops by police, partly, he says, because he drove a nice truck.
Still, he does not characterize his experience as “racially oppressed.”
His sons have had more hostility and occasional stereotyping, Hodges says, though they were “much better off in Salt Lake than in Tampa in terms of diversity, exposure and quality of life.”
New Pilgrim was established as part of the Southern Baptist Convention by seven Black families in 1923, Hodges explains, and is considered a historic Black church.
A little more than a decade ago, though, the church moved to a new location in Kearns, changed its name to The Point Church, and began consciously creating a more diverse and multiethnic congregation.
These days, more than half the 1,000 or so members are Black, with 21% white and the rest of various ethnicities, he says. “We have 33 different countries represented in our church.”
Notably, most of the congregants are between ages 18 and 35.
The conversation about race and culture is important to church members, Hodges says. “We have people on every side of issues.”
Though the church went virtual early in the pandemic, it returned to some in-person services about two months ago by requiring reservations, cutting down the number of people in the sanctuary at once (it holds up to 800, but attendance is limited to 250 per service, with three services each Sunday), and requiring masks.
People will get vaccinated, the pandemic “will pass, and our land will be healed,” Hodges says. “God will help us.”
After this, maybe everyone will better appreciate “communal aspects of our faith walk,” he says, like shaking hands, hugging, and talking face to face.
Oh, and now he is a chaplain to the Utah Jazz.